In September of this year, I commenced my 'debut season' as a Metropolitan Opera singer. The Met is an amazing place, and one of the things that impressed me most was the way artists are treated with respect and professionalism. I worked there as a cover: someone who fully rehearses and prepares for an operatic role, and then waits in the wings in case another singer is unable to perform, but barring that event, doesn't otherwise perform the role in that house. Even so, I was repeatedly congratulated, officially and unofficially, on my 'debut' at the Met. My name and photo are on the official Met roster. I am a Metropolitan Opera singer. (Wow.)
These are a few notes I jotted down about my experiences there...
Week 1 of rehearsals for The Tempest, The Metropolitan Opera, New York, Monday:
I have a 10 a.m. call to do a 'flying' rehearsal, which consists of being fitted into a harness (borrowed from one of the Valkyries in the Ring, not mine, which is being custom made) and being hoisted into the air. I suddenly realise, because of a strong burning sensation, that all of my body weight is now being concentrated in my hips. And..then I am asked to sing. A Capella. Yes, I do need to find out what it feels like to sing in this position, but it would be nice to know if I am in the right key...not exactly what I had envisioned my first vocalizations as a principal singer at the Met would be like...
Released from this unusual experience (and I hasten to add that everyone is very apologetic, helpful and polite) I am directed to the wardrobe department where I am thoroughly measured (still in the harness, which has to be worn under the costume) and squeezed into the main cast Ariel's costume which consists of stretch Lycra. Photos are taken. Return to the rehearsal space and back to dangling on the end of a rope. The rope (or wire, as it is alarmingly called) is threaded through a chandelier, so my character will appear - with the full costume and theatrical effects, of course - to be a Harpy who has suddenly transmogrified from said lighting fixture. I have to release a giant set of wings as I begin my ascent, while a group of acrobats proceed to pull and release ropes which make the chandelier, and me, swing quite violently across the room. Again, I am asked to sing, only this time with the assistance of a recording of the scene's music.
Back in my street clothes, I find my way to the music rehearsal (feeling slightly embarrassed about sneaking in like a child late for her first day at school) just in time for the coffee break. I get to meet a couple of fellow cast members and covers, and listen to some of my role being rehearsed, before we all break up for lunch, and both myself and the main cast Ariel are released for the day. Welcome to the Met!
After the excitement of my first day 'trial by fire,' the second day is positively sedate. All I need to do is listen to the main cast rehearse with the conductor (who is also, fabulously, the composer), take notes and generally look interested. However, today is also my younger son's 6th birthday, and I am an ocean away from him. I pass a note around the rehearsal room (again playing at naughty school child) which reads: 'My son is 6 today - will you help me sing Happy Birthday to him at the lunch break?' Several singers acknowledge my missive, and I figure that ought to make a sufficiently impressive sound. When the lunch break is called, myself and my fellow conspirators gather in the best spot for cell phone reception, and I ring home. As I am waiting for my husband to pick up the phone, several other singers ask what is going on and offer to join in. By the time we start in with Happy Birthday, both casts of The Tempest are gathered round, who sing with full operatic gusto, spontaneously breaking 4-part harmony, and I have to stop singing because I am welling up.
More music rehearsals today, plus a little bit more acrobat training for me. In another scene, my character is hiding inside the chandelier, which is resting on its side on the floor. I learn a routine where I emerge from the chandelier, climb on top, stand, squat, lie down (verrrry comfortable!), and generally perch on this oddly shaped piece of set. I start to wish I worked out more. A lot more. I am videoed doing this oh-so-graceful routine so I can practice at home...
Today both the main cast Ariel and I have flying rehearsal. I watch her go through the routine (the one hanging from the chandelier) and then I get strapped into a harness and do the same. She has done this particular production before, so she knows it is possible to sing and fly at the same time, and therefore feels safe marking the part down an octave. I have no such experience to back me up, so when it is my turn I take advantage of having a live pianist and assistant conductor in the room, and give it to them with both barrels. Considering I haven't had any coaching yet and I am dangling from a wire, it goes pretty well. I hope music schools are incorporating acrobatics into the curriculum for aspiring opera singers...
Week 2, Tuesday:
This is more like the covering jobs I am used to. Sitting in a corner watching the main cast being put through their paces, and trying to take notes/remember what moves go where in the music/shadow perform what they're doing, and generally try to behave and not distract, or at least not to gossip too much with the other covers. Reassuring to know that in some respects, the Met is like any other opera house.
Not called to rehearsal today, but it is payday, so I find my way to the payroll office, which is in a part of the building I have not visited before. On the way out, I get turned around, and end up on the wrong side of the house. A stage hand kindly directs me to the correct elevator bank, the route to which takes me into the front of house area, and I suddenly find myself with a view of Lincoln Center Plaza I didn't know existed. Those huge arched windows actually go up 6 floors, and it it quite breathtaking from the inside at that height. Looking down into the lobby area, I can see the famous crystal chandeliers and red carpeted staircases. I fish my phone out of my handbag and surreptitiously snap a few photos before wending my way out of the building.
An email comes through from the rehearsal department informing me of a change in today's schedule. Instead of observing both morning and afternoon sessions, the cover cast will be observing in the morning and rehearsing in the afternoon. OK, I know I need to be prepared for everything and anything, no problem. Then, on the subway platform waiting for the train to Lincoln Center, my cell phone rings. The rehearsal department, giving me a heads up that the lady I am covering is feeling unwell, and I (can't quite hear the rest, as a train rumbles by on the other track)...OK, I suppose they mean I'll sing it from the side while she goes through the motions? Whatever, at least I'll arrive in good time to warm up a bit and find out exactly what's going on.
Actually, she is not there at all. It's all me, acting, climbing on bits of set, and singing. For the main cast, the head producer, and the conductor. Who also just happens to be the composer. No pressure then.
Week 4, Monday:
Stage rehearsals in the main auditorium begin for our production. Now there's no mistaking where we are. This is a truly iconic opera house. In the afternoon session, the covers have a music call. This is the first opportunity we have really had to hear each other sing. Cue a bit of nerves all round and no excuses for marking! Still, it's good a) to get a chance to really sing out loud after days of listening and b) to get this little ritual of 'so what are this lot really like?' out of the way.
Morning session only today, watching and taking notes. It is useful to see the machinery in place instead of having to imagine all the 'special effects'. I also get another harness fitting, this time with the head of the technical/design team, who impresses me greatly by lifting me off the floor (by the harness) with his bare hands. It fits. And it is far, far more comfortable than the previous, borrowed harness. This harness, and a complete duplicate costume has been built specifically for me, something that doesn't happen in every opera house. Even if I never get a chance to perform in this run, it feels a bit special that somewhere in the costume storage at the Met there will be pieces of clothing with little labels with my name on them...
Chandelier scene on stage. And, surprise, I am handed a rehearsal leotard and led to the principal dressing rooms to change so I can have a go too. The technicians strap me into my harness while the main cast Ariel is lifted and the crew practice their cues for the scene. When that has been done to everyone's satisfaction, I am fitted into the 'harpy' costume pieces (including some oversized bird-claws that make it nearly impossible to walk) and put through the routine. I'm shown how to shuffle on my bottom to the base of the chandelier, present my bottom to the acrobat who has the responsibility of attaching me to the wire, and make the necessary adjustments while the chandelier is raised and I am hoisted into the air along with it. I do my best to unfurl the wings at the right moment, move my bird-claws menacingly, and stare straight at the conductor/composer and sing the right notes in the right order. I am singing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Well, I am singing whilst hovering over the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Close enough.
(I have to report that I never got to 'go on' in this production. The main cast Ariel was far too healthy for that. I did, however, sing in a couple of promotional events at outside venues, and was duly billed as a 'Metropolitan Opera singer' for these appearances. And I must admit: that felt very nice indeed.)
The Metropolitan Opera performance of The Tempest, by British composer Thomas Ades, will be broadcast on the Met's Saturday Matinee radio series at 1:00 p.m. ET and on BBC Radio 3 at 6:00 p.m. GMT on Saturday, 29 December 2012